News Column

Quilting gets cool in Albrecht-Kemper exhibit

June 13, 2014

By Shea Conner, St. Joseph News-Press, Mo.

June 13--Tula Pink and Luke Haynes are both rock stars in the world of textile art, but that's where the similarities end.

Pink's a tall chick. Haynes is a dude on the shorter side. Pink resides in St. Joseph after growing up in Los Angeles. Haynes now lives in L.A. after bouncing all over the country. Pink studied fine art at the Otis College of Art and Design on the West Coast. Haynes studied architecture at Cooper Union on the East Coast. Pink's designs can be found on thousands of bedspreads and hundreds of body parts scattered across the world. Haynes' work can be seen at the Brooklyn Museum, the American Folk Art Museum, the Newark Museum and the headquarters of the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation to name a few.

Even the way they approach a simple quilt is radically different.

"I'm trying to functionalize my images and she's trying to visually enhance her function. It's this cool flip-flop and it'll make for some interesting conversation," Haynes says.

Some interesting conversation is exactly what the curators at the Albrecht-Kemper Museum of Art are aiming for as the building hosts the work of Pink and Haynes in "Pattern: Repeat." The show already is on display at the museum, but an official opening reception -- in which the public can meet the artists -- will be held from 4 to 7 p.m.June 14.

Here's another difference between the two artists: "Pattern: Repeat" marks the first time that Pink's work has been displayed in an art museum. Because her work has such a strong commercial presence, she'd never been asked to provide for a fine art show before. For Haynes, his artwork is being exhibited for the umpteenth time (seriously, he can't even keep track anymore).

For the first time, the Albrecht-Kemper Museum has brought together two icons of modern quilting in the same building. No other big-city museum or trendy art gallery can make that claim.

"We come at this thing from completely opposite sides, but we arrive in a really similar place," Pink says. "... And now they'll both be hanging on opposing walls in the same museum. I think it's just great."

Pink's fans rave about her work as if she's the Jimi Hendrix of fabric design, so it's only natural that she got her start in the music business. For about six years after she graduated from Otis College, she worked as a graphic designer for several major music companies. She says she often worked 20-hour days and, at some point, quilting became a release for the quirky young artist.

"We did everything from punk bands to Megadeth to Katy Perry and Britney Spears. I mean, we ran the gamut. I was spending all of my days drawing skulls and daggers and talking to rappers," she recalls. "And, so when I'd come home and relax, quilting was about as opposite as I could get from what I did during the day."

She found that quilting and crafting fabric designs in particular satiated her creative thirst and suited her rigid personality.

"For all of my eccentricity, I'm actually quite Type A in a lot of ways, and very, very organized and methodical," she says. "It's really half art, half math."

Pink would craft perfectly repeating but incredibly intricate designs on Velum grid paper and go from there. She avoided typical quilting stand-bys like flowers ("too generic," she says) and people ("too specific," she says), and instead put together radical patterns mostly based on nature. She gave them all a splash of popping California color.

Eventually, she would print them in her garage and post some photos on her blog. It took only 36 hours for Moda Fabrics to come calling, and Pink's designs have been sold around the world ever since.

"I'm at the point now that I work, again, 20 hours a day seven days a week," she laughs. "But now it's in a way that's a lot more satisfying because I don't have to change out of my pajamas."

She dazzled quilting fanatics with collections like "Acacia," "Salt Water," "Fox Field," "Prince Charming" and "Parisville." They were drawn to the fantasy of her designs and all of the hidden treasures that came with them, like butterfly silhouettes, shadowy slugs and tucked-away turtles. One writer even referred to her as "the mistress of the hidden image." She even describes herself as "the 'Where's Waldo' of animal fabric."

"I'm always looking for things that aren't the way they seem, so to translate that into the work just made sense," Pink says. "As I kept making more collections, people were like, 'Are you going to be able to keep this up?" I was like, 'Keep it up? This is how my brain works.'"

"I live almost entirely in my head," she adds. "I'd much rather look at something and wonder what could be there than see what is. The things I can think of are much more fantastic than what can actually occur in real life. So, that's the approach I take in my fabric."

Pink moved to St. Joseph five years ago to be closer to her family, but business kept on booming. To market more of her designs, Pink started making large quilts incorporating them. They've been sitting in her home for a while, and now they're finally being looked upon with fresh eyes at the Albrecht-Kemper Museum.

"Everything I have up on the walls, I had to pull off of a bed in my house," she says with a chuckle. "It's funny because what Luke does is so focused on the image. They're hung in museums and they're not necessarily intended to be used."

Although Haynes' quilts are considered "fine art," his love for textile art started more humbly. In fact, he knitted and crocheted at a very young age.

"It was my way of working with the angst of going through middle and then high school. You have a lot of energy sitting in those little desks, so most of my teachers let me knit," Haynes explains. "It was my Ritalin before Ritalin."

His infatuation with fabric continued to progress as he grew older and studied architecture and design. Haynes wanted to show people the many creative ways the medium could be used, and by 2009, he was exhibiting quilts as show pieces.

"It was always 'How can I make a portrait?' How can I make an object out of fabric using some of these techniques from quilting?' ... As a designer, I spend my life looking at objects (and) thinking about them in as many contexts as possible," he says. "If I'm able to do that for a section of the populace, I've done my job."

Haynes' quilts have drawn national attention for their imagery. He's essentially creating portraits with cloth in bold colors. In doing so, he has taken on a number of American pop culture cornerstones. In "Iconography," he crafted quilts based around images of Madonna, Ronald Reagan and Jay-Z and Kanye West. In "American Nostalgia," Haynes gave Abraham Lincoln, Barack Obama and Michael Jackson the fabric treatment. He incorporated McDonald's french fries, the American flag and Grant Wood's "American Gothic" into other quilts from the collection.

By taking on such larger-than-life entities, he says he's trying to bring people closer to his work. His subjects serve as an entry point to the medium, and because they're well-known, there's less of dissonance between his work and the viewer.

"That's the language that we as a culture have to work with," Haynes says.

His quilts in "Pattern: Repeat" boast less famous subjects. A handful come from a collection called "Clothes Portraits." In this series, Haynes photographed subjects for the quilt's design and then sewed pieces of the clothes they were wearing into the artwork -- whether it was a red plaid tank top or a blue sundress with white polka dots. The rest of these quilts are completed with recycled and found fabrics. In this series, he uses the medium to bring viewers closer to the subject.

"Why is making a quilt portrait more dynamic than taking a photo of them and printing them out? The answer is that I'm actually presenting the clothes that they chose to present themselves. It's not just an image referencing something else," Haynes explains. "It's a cool conversation between their own fabrics and the fabrics of the community they live in."

Pink's half of "Pattern: Repeat" doesn't share that kind of photo-realism, but her quilts are plenty captivating. One called "Space Dust," for example, includes depictions of jet packs and aliens in its top stitching. The detail of the skulls, chains and water scenes in "Scurvy" should thrill museum-goers as well.

For more information about the exhibition, call the Albrecht-Kemper Museum of Art at 233-7003 or visit For more information about Luke Haynes or Tula Pink, visit or

Shea Conner can be reached at Follow him on Twitter: @stjoelivedotcom.


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